Many significant “discoveries” science will make in the coming decade have actually already been made. The synthesis of some of these revelations in the ‘teens, and the synergistic results of this work will change the world as we know it. A sampling of these discoveries can be clustered in three domains: transgenic research, bio-computation and satellite technology.
Since the identification of the structure of DNA in the 50s, our learning curve on the manipulation of genetic molecules has been nearly exponential. It is now possible to extract strands of DNA from a piece of liver, or an onion, in a kitchen with a blender and inexpensive groceries! Even understanding how these chemicals are translated into the mechanisms of living organisms is a mystery nearly solved in all of its nuanced glory. We teach it in high school biology. We are talking about advances in only my lifetime here (well, almost)!
60 Minutes last week (01-10-10) ran a story on scientists interested in resurrecting Woolly Mammoths from “fossilized” DNA. Others are preserving the genomes of present day endangered and non- endangered species, just in case. How reminiscent of Jurassic Park! This stands as a dramatic example of the dexterity with which we can utilize the ‘building blocks’ of life in our modern age. Many significant advances in this field occurred in the 80 and 90s.
This research has revolutionized previously unimagined aspects of ‘managed natural history.’
When I was teaching high school biology a few years back, I had a fish tank with some “Glo-fish,” genetically modified Zebrafish. These normally grey fish with lengthwise black stripes had genes from “marine creatures” in them that made them ‘glow’ “in three striking colors —Starfire Red®, Electric Green®, and Sunburst Orange®.” DNA sequences were extracted from fluorescent sea organisms and inserted into the embryos of the fish. They grew to express the (introduced) proteins in their genes! While never a fan of the work involved in maintaining an aquarium, I had it to help impress upon the students how incredible the world they were entering is going to be. We can do such things now. But, we also will do substantially more.
Glo-fish were originally developed to be stream pollution monitors. Aside from the ethical questions involved with releasing genetically modified organisms into the waterways, they have become extremely popular in the pet trade. Since this innovation, entire organisms such as pigs and cats which glow green have been ‘created,’ for use in research of bio-indicators. Controlling the expression of such glowing tissues allows developmental geneticists to track the life histories of various genes.
Other efforts along these lines have been even more impressive. Fireflies light up using chemicals produced from glands in their abdomens that they mix together to create an exergonic reaction producing a very efficient light with almost no heat. In the 80s, Stephen Howell, a plant biologist from the University of California San Diego, inserted these genes into bacteria and made the cells glow. Bacteria are routinely used for many important applications in transgenic research. Howell and his research team also put these genes into tobacco plants and monkey cells, and got them to glow, too!
The implications of this, some since realized, are enormous. It removes the reliance on potentially harmful, radioactive indicators, or markers, in developmental research and allows researchers to track the expression of genes in living organisms, safely and easily, throughout the biological world. Stem cell research relies on such markers to trace the destiny of the manipulations. Even high school student projects at the Ohio State Science Fair last year used this innovation to research cancer cell development!
In other advances in genetic research, genes discovered in the early 1900s were found to suppress the development of eyes in fruit flies. In the 80s, Dr. Walter Gehring learned that placing these genes in various regions in the fruit fly genome would produce eyes in corresponding locations on the adult fly. He could grow fly eyes on knees, wing bases and various other places on the flies’ bodies. The code for eye production was unaffected by this manipulation, only eye placement changed.
But more incredible that this, Gehring and colleagues, also found homologous genes in mammals! They took genes from mice and, inserting them into the insect embryos, moved around fruit fly eyes! It turned out that these genes initiated cascading pathways that led to eye development, and they occurred in many animals with nearly the exact same coding. (I tend to use too many “!’s,” sometimes, but how can you not?!) This reveals an interesting phenomenon in genetics: there are only so many ways to build an eye, but even fewer to initiate that process.
Transferring genes from one aquatic organism to another as in Glo-fish, and getting them to express, is amazing. When those animals belong to entirely different Phyla, such as fruit flies and mice, it’s incredible. But
transferring genes across biological Kingdoms is really remarkable. Maybe the solution to world hunger is engineering peoples’ noses to be photosynthetic – sea slugs already seem to be doing this naturally - is skipping a few meals here or there worth a green nose to you?
Biocompuation, or Biomolecular Computation
Another recent and almost unbelievable discovery is the ability to use genetic molecules to perform computational exercises. Computers as we know them today are based on a binary system of 1’s and 0’s, basically ‘on/off’ switches. This is not news to many, but I think few people appreciate how sophisticated the arrays of these switches can be. You are reading this entry, considering posting it on your Facebook page, then checking out the cool videos on our BUG pages and answering your cell phone text messages all based on this on/off binary system. It is almost as dynamic as trying to think of all of the things your brain is doing right now (don’t forget to think about thinking about it, too!)
The exponential curve of discovery in computer technology has been astounding. In 1985 at The Ohio State University, students had an option of signing up for an experimental section of English Composition in which they could write their essays on an Apple Word Processor. This was fewer than 30 years ago, at the largest university in the country, and they weren’t sure if it would ‘take!’ (I opted for the word processor!) Look at us now – all based on 1’s and 0’s.
DNA is a 4-way or “quaternary” code. This adds an additional exponential
measure to computational facility and power. The bases Thymine, Cytosine, Adenine and Guanine (T,C,A,G) are the ‘switches.’ Also, as a naturally occurring component of all living cells, a DNA-based, molecular computer will pose far fewer challenges for use in biological systems than silicon-based micro-chips will, no matter how micro they get. For many years now scientists have been exploring this non-silicon, quaternary system of DNA, in conjunction with its ability to rapidly and accurately self-replicate, to increase capacity in computer processing speed and storage to unimaginable proportions. As early as 1994 Adleman showed that DNA could be used to program computations in a laboratory setting.
And in 2005, Scientific American reported researcher Karmella Haynes and her colleagues in North Carolina had successfully inserted fabricated strands of DNA ‘computers’ into bacterial cells which then solved classic computational puzzles. The correct solution produced an enzyme that made them withstand a subsequent chemical treatment. Successful cells survived – beautiful! This demonstration of scientists’ abilities to manipulate genetic material reveals a small fragment of the future of bio-computation.
Combine the use of genetic molecules for computation with the recent work in melding silicon chips with living nerve tissue to begin to understand some of the implications and possibilities of the biosciences revolution we are experiencing. In 2004, Naweed Syed, a neurobiologist at the University of Calgary's faculty of medicine reported actually growing snail nerve cells on a microchip. When a neuron was stimulated, it transferred the stimulus to other cells and the chip recorded it. They worked together. He hopes this research will help amputees interact with their artificial limbs better.
But the implications of combining this with other advances in the bio-tech
world are much more far-reaching. From medicine to ecological studies to
incorporating computer technology into living systems, we can hardly conceive the future of these revolutionary feats.
And finally, the innovations that will tie these fields together will arise in the field of satellite technology – turned inward. The vision of Martine Rothblatt, the developer of Sirius Satellite Radio and the founder and CEO of United Therapeutics in 2007, will drive some of this research.
After an incredible career that included the creation of Sirius Satellite Radio, and GeoStar (a vehicle locator system), and leading the United Nations counsel on the Human Genome Rights declaration, (and a remarkable amount of other noteworthy accomplishments), she turned her considerable resources to medical technology. Her daughter developed an ‘incurable’ pulmonary disease. Finding the cure for this disease has saved thousands of lives every years, including her daughter’s, and led to Rothblatt forming United Therapeutics, a medical biotechnology company. Some of her work is based on ‘transhumanism,’ which aims toward technological immortality. The ultimate realization of this would be something like capturing all of the electrical signals and synaptic connections in a person’s brain onto some storage and retrieval device for eternity – probably a non-silicon, quaternary system-based device!
The relative merits of technological immortality notwithstanding, one of Rothblatt’s bio-medical objectives is to miniaturize satellites to the extent that they could be injected into people and guided externally to deliver some treatment or take some precise, in vivo measurement. Some versions of this sort of exercise are already widespread in modern medicine such as ‘remote surgery,’ in which doctors can manipulate robot arms thousands of miles away to perform delicate operations. Rothblatt’s vision has the doctor standing right in front of a person controlling a little satellite device remotely as it navigates around internally to find the exact site of infection, or genetic mutation or whatever anomaly they’re treating.
So, put these together. Satellite communicating, DNA bio-computing, transgenic organisms performing tasks that were never conceived in the Natural World (except as it was impacted by humans). Folks, we may come to know the first decade or two of this 21st Century as the “Rise of the Borg!”
"Strength is irrelevant, resistance is futile. We wish to improve ourselves. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service ours." -The Borg